A few weeks ago I was wandered into The Works and I found a group of board games for sale. The Works have got a nice habit of finding obscure games and selling them for really reasonable prices – in the past I have picked up copies of Gosu, Cape Horn and Mousquetaire Du Roy from there. I once you sort through the dross (and these does tend to be a fair bit), you can occasionally unearth a little gem of a game. And on this occasion, I am pleased to say that I did when I picked up a copy of Madame Ching.
Madame Ching is produced by Hurrican games and designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc. The game is set in the seas around China and casts the players as new pirate out to impress their captain, the infamous Madame Ching Shih (a real figures from the 18th – 19th century). How you do this is by carrying out expeditions to raid ships and protect local villages from the Chinese navy, which would provide you with rewards of gold, jewels and other booty. The most successful pirates may even be able to launch an attack on the harbour of Hong Kong and steal away all its riches. A pirate that proves themselves worthy and skilled enough will even be granted the captaincy of Madame Ching’s flagship itself, the China Pearl.
The game is a hand management game, wear you play cards in order to sail your ship further along the board. To move you ship forwards, you must simply play a card of a value higher than the one you played the turn previous. These cards also have different colours – a card of the same colour moves you horizontally. A card of a different colour moves you diagonally. This is important when looking to finish your journey, as you need to move diagonally downwards in order to end on the more valuable missions. Moving horizontally is more risky. You can claim encounter cards that give you special abilities, but the missions rewards tend to be smaller.
You refill your hand by taking one of four cards on display at the end of the turn, so clever players can keep track of opponent’s likely moves. One of these cards however, is always face down and represents a gamble on the player’s behalf. Players also draw cards in the order of the value of the movement cards they played earlier. A higher card goes first, but has less of an opportunity for building runs to complete the higher rewarding missions.
The missions themselves are a series of number tiles at the bottom of the board that are randomly determined at the start of the game. When a player finishes their journey, they compare the number of the square they end on to the tiles that are left and can claim any mission with a number equal or lower to the square. The tiles all have the rewards for completion printed on them – gems, coins or encounter cards. Then the player returns their ship to the start and begins a new journey.
The game end once all the missions have been completed or a player has got enough skills (which are earned by playing matching symbols on movement cards during a journey) to become captain of the China Pearl. Then the players add up their booty, along with other cards they may have collected along the way, and the winner is the one with the highest score.
There is a lot to like about this game – the design is fantastic. The art is beautiful and in a style completely befitting the theme. The components are nice – I especially like the wooden ship tokens and the plastic gemstones. The board is nicely set up, with spaces available for all the cards and components, so you can see what is going on and who is going where. Everything is clear and well thought out.
The game play itself may appear basic, but there is actually a lot going on and there are clear routes to winning. You may try to go after the big missions, only to find someone is collecting cards and steals a bunch of your gems at the end. Or someone else is trying to become captain of the Pearl and end the game early. So the concept of just laying a higher card each turn actually hides a fair degree of depth.
However, at the start, it is just literally putting higher value cards on top of one another and as a result, the game can sometimes take a while to get going. Until players have some skills on their ships or have got an encounter card or two under their belt, the game progresses in a relatively straight forwards manner with little interaction other than with who claims the movement cards first.
The theme, whilst represented nicely in the artwork, doesn’t feel as though it is part of the game. In truth, the game could be about journeying anywhere to carry out a task with exactly the same mechanics and it would not feel any different.
However, these are really only minor quibbles when you consider that this is a really solid Euro game and also, a great entry point for people to board gaming. I was able to explain the concept and mechanics in a few minutes to my wife and children, and we were all getting involved and playing soon afterwards. And that is probably the greatest selling point for Madame Ching. When it all comes down to it, it is a fantastic game for a family to get together for an hour, play and enjoy.